What is The Best Online Address Book? A Debate Revisited

Let’s get clear up front – we’re talking about ‘online address books’, which for the purposes of this article means an address-book, a place where you hold information on how to get in touch with people, that is online. No, I promise this will not be the most patronizing article ever written, but it is important to clear up a potentially misleading set of terms.

Online address book

Let’s also be clear on is what we’re not talking about: phone books, like those you may still receive from your landline provider. We’re not talking about those.

Now we’re all singing from the same song-sheet, let’s get down to the business of looking at the market for online address books, and where we seem to be heading, what is now about 10 years since Facebook entered the mix.

I’m going to organize the market for online address books based on 4 key characteristics:

Online address book characteristics - synchronizerSynchronizers – an app that takes a version of the truth from somewhere and pushes it to multiple devices

Online address book characteristics - aggregatorsAggregators – an app that pulls information from disparate places and creates a central version of the truth

Online address book characteristics - manipulatorsManipulators – an app that extracts pieces of information and organizes it for you

Online address book characteristics - networkNetworks – an app that connects people to create an evolving network of information

Each of these characteristics has been seen in varying forms across a multitude of online address books. What we’ll set out here is a view of how this market has developed over time, where we’ve come to, and where we’re going.

There is also, of course, a whole market out there for OS or device-specific apps. Say, a contacts app build for iPhone only, or the native Gmail contacts capabilities. For the sake of this piece we’re not going to delve into these areas in any detail, as these are quite different propositions to platform-independent online address books.

Where did we start?

The Internet boom. So, back in the early parts of the last decade we saw the first green shoots which turned in to services like Plaxo, since acquired by Comcast; initially an online address book that mainly acted, by our definition, as an aggregator and syncing service. Plaxo still plies its trade as a major player and has made moves in to the Network space, but it has been flanked by a number of newer-comers in the mid-to-later part of the 00′s – that we’ll look at next.

The arrival of Facebook and boom of mobile Internet. Since the arrival of Facebook and the boom of mobile Internet there have been a number of players that have ranged in their successes – primarily what we’d consider aggregators and syncing services. Attempting to pull together lots of disparate parts as the breadth of user-driven services on the web expanded.

Notable were players such as Soocial, a Dutch outfit since acquired by Vimeo, and Zyb, a Danish outfit acquired at an earlier stage by Vodafone. Services such as WhitePages also tried to get in on the action – the list goes on.

Of course there’s been the deluge of iOS and Android apps for Contacts as mobile Internet has exploded. These were generally focused on syncing with a bit of aggregation, but with a platform-specific twist.

Alongside these you had slightly different services, like Xobni, that tried to really get in to the fabric of the email capabilities that were prevalent at the time like Outlook for desktop. We would generally consider these aggregators and manipulators. As you might expect, services like this were at the mercy of the OS/platforms fashionable at the time, which have been shifting at breakneck speed. Because of this they have had to pivot away and align with services like Gmail and mobile email (note in case you’re interested, Xobni / Smartr Contacts were then acquired by Yahoo in the recent past).

The power of the network.Of course, with the power of the social network being demonstrated in epic fashion by Facebook and a whole host of other online services, these online address books started to realize this was an obvious channel to gain growth and ‘stickiness’, and so we started commonly seeing the ability to ‘connect’ with other users: Networks.

However, the functionality of these apps has been built over many years and are feature-rich – meaning that the social-network aspect tends to take a back seat – kind of plastered to the side of a aggregator / synchronization service.

Contacts on the move

Where are we heading?

So, a lot has been happening in the online address book space, albeit mainly bubbling in the background as headliners like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and the sexier content-driven services out there take the limelight.

But with all this, there has not really been a game changer in the online address book space… Something that really changed the way we go about our day-to-day lives… So where is it heading? Of course there are more outfits emerging alongside the established players doing more of the same; see players like Kontaktkarte, a good European outfit, and ContactZilla to name a couple (there are many more); but to really take a peak in to the future we need think about these fundamental musts:

  • Any device, anywhere
  • Harness the power of the network
  • Usability – get rid of the clutter
  • Removal of short-termist technology ties

Which brings us to Clouco, a newcomer that entered the fray recently with a distinct approach: A focus on harnessing the power of the network.

This approach could be a turning point in the online address-book and contacts market, and Clouco is one of the pioneers focusing on the network at the outset, rather than as an afterthought. This is a key point, as the investments in historical development and pre-existing technology ties can limit the ability for brown-field services to pivot whole-heartedly.

If the past 14 years has taught us anything, it is that the aggregators and syncing apps can certainly flourish, and they will continue to have an important place in the market, but they will struggle to gain real mass appeal. The future is platform and device independent, and I believe is, most importantly, about the Network.

About the Author: James Wright is one of the Co-Founders of Clouco, a private online address book and contacts application. Based out of London, England, James is an IT professional and entrepreneur.

Clouco is available for free on mobile, tablet and desktop – try it out at Clouco or find it in the Chrome Webstore, Firefox Marketplace or AppsFuel marketplace. You can also follow @CloucoTeam on Twitter.

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